Falling in Love

Barnett Garrison had a way with women. And women had their way with Barnett Garrison.

"I said, 'Barnett, what do you want from me?' and he said, 'I don't know,' and I said, 'You want to make love to me, don't you? Well, I might enjoy that, too.' "

But rules forbade Niecee from going into his room, or Barnett from leaving the premises. Niecee left the matter alone and set about doing the things that signified her claim on a man: mending Barnett's clothes, ironing his shirts, shining his shoes. She even cleaned his dentures, though that made her queasy.

Barnett, meanwhile, seems to have begun plotting. He told Niecee he would find a way for them to be together, and around Christmas, the guest, with his walker, tried to walk away from the Guest Home. People were sent to bring him back. When Barnett was invited to his sister Annette's Christmas party, he thought he had found the solution: He told Niecee she was coming with him, but Niecee said she hadn't been invited, and it was against the rules. The car came for Barnett, but he wouldn't get in.

So they went on as usual with their conversations at her desk. Nearly everyone had learned of Barnett's crush, if only from the way he ogled Niecee. Her feelings for him, however, were not widely known until the dance on Valentine's Day, when Niecee slowly waltzed with Barnett to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," the staff watching in awe.

As her position at Sugar Land Oaks became more tenuous, Niecee's place with Barnett grew stronger. Annette misinterpreted Barnett's restlessness as only a longing for freedom, and trying to appease him, she gave permission for Barnett to leave the Guest Home each week for archery practice. This had done the trick.

Every Saturday, Niecee began meeting Barnett at Viking Archery, telling the driver she would take it from there. Barnett, who had a severe tremor in his right hand, never did hit a bull's-eye that Niecee saw, but then, they didn't spend much time at the range. Niecee would help him into her car, and they would go for sandwiches and cappuccino. Then they would go parking at Richmond State Park.

"I said to him, 'Barnett, you know, this is hell, at our age, to be sitting in the park doing this heavy smooching,' and he said, 'Yeah, but you know, it's kind of nice.' "

Being a sensible 73-year-old woman, Niecee never let things get too out of hand. There in the car with his arms around her, she often just wanted to talk. Before long, Niecee was telling Barnett that she was not a plaything and was not here to play games. It was either all or nothing. She would be the only one in his life, or she wouldn't be in his life at all. "I told Barnett, 'I'm sorry your marriage was not a good one. Mine was, and I will not accept anything less.' "

Barnett did not run away, and Niecee began talking practical matters. She said her 1994 Cutlass suited her fine, but he was a big man, and if he wanted a bigger car, she wouldn't object. As for furniture, perhaps they could reupholster her old couch. She would want her grandchildren welcome in their home. Also, she would like him to know she had donated her body to medical science, and did he have a problem with that? Barnett said he didn't, as long as the cadaver had his last name.

He never mentioned anything about a guardian or his rights as a citizen, but Barnett did sense his family would come between them. He told Niecee there would be hell to pay if they got married. She asked to stand beside him as they faced their problems, and that was as close to a proposal as they got. Barnett agreed to everything. Marriage was just something they agreed on together.

Niecee quit her job at the rest home. She returned a few days later and signed the register "Niecee Garrison," and took her man home.

"Are you sleeping with my brother?" Annette asked.
Barnett's hunger had indeed been sated, but on the telephone, Niecee only replied, "We're married." Shrieks and squeals then, not of joy but of horror. Niecee's sister-in-law shouted, "It's the money! It's the money!" And she told Niecee to return Barnett immediately, or face charges of kidnapping.

Niecee hung up the phone. She didn't think she could be charged with kidnapping; on the other hand, she didn't want to go to jail. She told Barnett it was time to go. Hurry up, she said.

They rushed back to where they started, back to the front door of Sugar Land Oaks. When they pulled up, Barnett's sister was waiting, along with his nephew, Curtis O'Brian, and a policeman. As Curtis came for Barnett, Niecee went directly to the officer. "Are you here to arrest me?" she asked. He said no, and she showed him her marriage license. The officer looked at it but did nothing to stop Curtis from taking her husband. As Niecee recalls it, Annette rushed forth, wagging her finger, telling Barnett, "You're going to be medicated and put in lockup because of this slut!"

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